Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fresh!

In Champaign, it once again wasn't pretty, but the Illinois defense suffocated Minnesota on the way to a 52-41 victory (61 possessions). It was game of extremes for the Gopher offense - Minnesota had a great night on the offensive glass (grabbing 46% of their plentiful misses), but had an astronomical turnover rate (31.1, their worst of the year) and shot just 32.5% eFG. It all added up to Minnesota's worst offensive showing of the season, 0.67 points per possession. The Illini, for their part, managed to shoot a decent 47.0% eFG and kept their turnovers somewhat under control (21.3 TO Rate), which was enough for victory on this night.

Mike Davis came up big again for Illinois with a 14-11 double-double. Watching the game, it seemed he was the only Illini capable of grabbing a defensive rebound, and that wasn't far from the truth - he had nearly half of the team's defensive boards (9 of 20). Mike Tisdale's recent rebounding surge is over - he grabbed just one board in 19 minutes and looked outmatched physically against Minnesota's freshmen big men.

For the Gophers, Damian Johnson got off to a huge start offensively, with 12 points in the first 7 minutes, but was not a big factor the rest of the way and finished with 18 points on 18 shots. He certainly made his mark on the defensive end with 3 blocks and 5 steals. Box score.

With the win, Illinois clinches a top 5 finish and a bye in first-round of the Big Ten Tournament. They also keep alive their slim hopes for a Big Ten title, with Michigan State coming to town this Sunday. Let me say that again - Illinois, with two games remaining, has a shot at the Big Ten title. That simple fact along should be enough to get Bruce Weber serious consideration for Coach of the Year.

Minnesota has now dropped back to 8-8 in conference play, but has home games against Wisconsin and Michigan to close things out. The Gophers figure to need at least one more win to secure an at-large bid, but they've been very good at home - only Purdue and Michigan State have won at Minnesota.

In the other game of the night, Michigan recaptured some of their early season magic and defeated Purdue 87-78 in 72 possessions (extremely fast for a Big Ten game). The Michigan offense was off the charts, scoring 1.2 points per possession; they did it with their best shooting night of the season, hitting a crazy 70% on twos and 50% on threes. Frankly, it's amazing that Purdue didn't get blown out when allowing that kind of shooting. The Wolverines even got to the foul line at a season-best clip, but shot only 60% from the line - apparently they needed someone guarding them. The Michigan defense left much to be desired, but I suppose you're allowed to give up 1.09 points per possession when you're shooting like that.

DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris were dynamite, scoring 29 and 27 points, respectively (on 16 and 15 shots) and grabbing 13 of the team's 29 rebounds. Robbie Hummel didn't seem to be bothered by his bad back, scoring 24 points on just 13 shots in the losing effort. Box score.

This Purdue loss changes the complexion of the Big Ten title race - Michigan State now holds a two loss lead over both Illinois and Purdue, but has to face each team one more time (with a trip to Indiana in between). The Spartans need just one more win to assure at least a share of the Big Ten title, and with that Indiana game looming, an MSU title is nearly a lock.

Still, both Illinois and Purdue have a realistic shot at a share of the title, but it requires each of them to beat the Spartans. There's actually a very credible scenario in which the three teams tie for the title:
  • Illinois wins out (vs Michigan State, at Penn State)
  • Purdue wins out (vs Ohio State, vs Northwestern, at Michigan State)
  • Michigan State wins only their game at Indiana

Looking at Pomeroy's projections, the only game in that scenario that is less than 50% probability is Purdue winning at Michigan State, and even that one doesn't seem far fetched. That type of finish would result in Big Ten Tournament seedings of #1 Illinois, #2 Purdue, and #3 Michigan State, due to tiebreakers - so clearly the Spartans can't relax too much.

The Big Ten gets back into action on Saturday with a tripleheader:

  • Iowa @ Northwestern, 1pm CT, Big Ten Network
  • Ohio State @ Purdue, 3pm CT, ESPN
  • Indiana @ Penn State, 5pm CT, Big Ten Network

The big match-up figures to be Ohio State at Purdue - the Buckeyes could basically lock up a bid with a road win, while Purdue needs to win out to have a shot at the Big Ten title.

On Sunday, we've got two very big games:

  • Michigan @ Wisconsin, 1pm CT, Big Ten Network
  • Michigan State @ Illinois, 3pm CT, CBS

Michigan's chances look a lot better after the Purdue win, but they could still use one more victory to finish 9-9 in-conference and not leave anything to chance. Wisconsin wants to take care of business at home; otherwise they'll have to win at Minnesota next week to acheive 10 conference wins.

The Michigan State/Illinois tilt has huge implications for the Big Ten title - Michigan State clinches at least a share with a victory, while Illinois still has a shot at the #1 seed in the BTT if they can win out. The two teams played very close in East Lansing, so it should be a good one.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In a parallel universe, Northwestern is locking up their bid... and Biff Tannen is a millionaire, you butthead.

Northwestern put on an offensive clinic last night in Bloomington, defeating Indiana 75-53 in 60 possessions. The Wildcats were red-hot from outside, hitting 9 of 16 on threes, but they also shot 57% from inside the arc and limited their turnovers to a reasonable 11. Put it all together and you’ve got Northwestern’s sixth best efficiency of the season – the only teams more permissive to the Wildcats have been Brown, Central Arkansas, UMKC, Wisconsin(!) and Ohio State(!).

Northwestern has a pretty consistent pattern going – they’re undefeated when they score more than 1.06 points per possession, and they’re just 2-11 when under that mark (with those wins coming against cupcakes Southern Methodist and UC Riverside). Northwestern’s defense is vastly improved over last season, but they’re still a team that must win with their offense.

It was another team effort for Northwestern, with 5 players in double figures and another with 8 points. Craig Moore bounced back from a rough Minnesota game to score 17 on 10 shots, but Michael Thompson may have bested him – 16 points on just 5 shots, 5 assists to 1 turnover, and 3 steals. Luka Mirkovic looked great off the bench, scoring 8 points on 7 shots, grabbing 7 rebounds, and blocking 2 shots. This Northwestern frontcourt could be awfully good next year.

For Indiana, Kyle Taber played very well when not saddled with foul trouble, finishing with 12 points (11 shots), 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks in just 18 minutes. Oh, and our idea of IU becoming a perimeter-oriented team? Let’s just say there’s a reason Tom Crean is a D1 coach and not us – IU shot just 3 for 21 from downtown and still managed to turn it over 17 times. Maybe taking more threes isn’t the answer for this young squad. Box score.

Northwestern wins their sixth Big Ten game, with a possible seventh win on-tap against Iowa – that’s progress for this program, but you can’t help but think about the ones that got away. Northwestern blew late leads against both Purdue and Illinois – flip those two games into wins and the Wildcats would be 17-9 (8-7), likely needing just 1-2 more wins to put themselves into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Instead, Northwestern will probably get an NIT bid and build towards next year, when they look to have a great shot at making the field of 65.

In the other matchup of the night, Iowa hung tough at Michigan State before falling 62-54. Both teams struggled with turnovers and each posted an eFG% above 50 – the main difference was on the glass, where the Spartans dominated. Watching the game, it felt like it shouldn’t even be close, with Michigan State totally outclassing Iowa athletically, then the Hawkeyes would hit a three and suddenly be within 8 or 9. The Hawkeyes never truly threatened in this one, but Michigan State failed to put them away.

It’s amazing that Tom Izzo still has any hair on his head – Michigan State’s turnover woes are maddening. Iowa is most certainly not a team that forces turnovers; in fact, only three teams have posted a higher TO rate against Iowa this season – Texas San Antonio, The Citadel, and Kansas State – and those games were all in November when Iowa had their full complement of players. You’ve got to give the Hawkeyes a lot of credit for the way they hung tough on the road with a short bench – Jake Kelly, Matt Gatens, and Devan Bawinkel all played the full 40 minutes. Kelly made some really tough shots on his way to 20 points, but he did commit 6 turnovers against the MSU pressure.

Delvon Roe had a nice game for Michigan State, scoring 16 points on just 7 shots. Korie Lucious chipped in 12 points on 4 for 7 shooting, all from downtown. MSU's freshmen carried them in this one. Box score.

Tom Izzo admitted his disappointment in the postgame interview, and I can’t blame him – this Michigan State team is just wildly inconsistent. We Geeks haven’t mentioned the stat before, but kenpom.com keeps a Consistency number, which is simply the standard deviation of scoring difference by game. Michigan State ranks 293rd in the nation in Consistency. If you’re wondering, the Big Ten is chock-full of inconsistent teams – Wisconsin is the most Consistent, and they rank 165th nationally. Most of the other Big Ten teams are 200+. Now, inconsistency isn’t necessarily a bad thing come tournament time – by definition, you've got to play above your head if you're facing a better team. Inconsistency just makes it a bit tougher to win 6 straight for a National Title, but it's not a disqualifier.

Tonight, Illinois looks to avenge one of their ugly losses as Minnesota comes to town (6pm CT, Big Ten Network). Purdue hopes to stay in the Big Ten title hunt as they visit a cornered Michigan squad (8pm CT, ESPN).

Now make like a tree, and get outta here.

Evan Turner, role player

Evan Turner is Ohio State. Ohio State is Evan Turner. The wing leads the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals. So you would think that if you stop Turner, you stop Ohio State. Well, Penn State found out last night that just isn't true. The Nittany Lions held Turner to just 6 points, scraped together from his infrequent shooting (only 4 shots). But the Buckeyes nevertheless pounded Penn State in the second half, prevailing 73-59 in a 53 possession game. Turner found other ways to contribute, dishing 8 assists and grabbing 6 rebounds. And his teammates picked up the scoring, four of them scoring in double figures. In fact, the whole team had a pretty easy time putting the ball in the basket, as the Buckeyes scored 1.38 points per possession. Yowzas! Even better news - our constant nagging about the turnovers might be getting through. The Buckeyes had only 6 in this one (and only 9 against Illinois), but then again, Penn State's defense is not exactly "frenetic." Ohio State's upcoming games against Purdue and Northwestern might provide a more rigorous test.

The blueprint for shutting down the Nittany Lions, however, is well-known: make someone other than Stanley Pringle, Talor Battle, or Jamelle Cornley beat you. The trio combined for 31 points on 30 shots, and on most nights, the rest of the team doesn't have another 30 points between them. The good news is that shutting the big three down is easier said than done, and so long as the Nittany Lions can take care of Indiana at home, they'll finish with at least 9 conference wins and 20 wins overall. Anything can happen on Selection Sunday, but I think most bracketologists would have Penn State playing on a neutral floor in April. Box score.

Tonight, Northwestern visits Indiana (our prediction might be on the line - we forecast 2 wins for the Hoosiers and this is their best remaining chance) and Iowa visits Michigan State.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Thad Matta is Bill Murray

In the very next game after displaying all sorts of offensive ugliness against Penn State, Illinois torched the nets in a 70-68 road victory over Ohio State. Bruce Weber's team shot 61% from two point range, and 53% from 3, shredding Ohio State's zone with a seemingly endless stream of 7 foot jumpers from Mike Davis. Davis finished with 22 points on 14 shots, and it seemed like every single one of those shots was a one-handed floater in the paint over OSU's shotblockers. Evan Turner led the Buckeyes with 17 points on 15 shots to go along with 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Box score.

For the Illni, this game effectively neutralizes that ugly home loss against Penn State, preserving their remote title hopes (though those hopes are fading fast with Michigan State's win over the Badgers). It's hard not to be impressed with the job Weber has done with the Illini this season, already doubling the team's conference win total from a year ago. He's certainly in the discussion for conference coach of the year (though Bill Carmody and Ed DeChellis will certainly provide some stiff competition).

Ohio State fans might feel like they're stuck in Groundhog Day right about now. Around this time last season, the Buckeyes sat at 8-4 in conference play and 17-8 overall. Thad Matta's team then proceeded to lose 4 out of their last 6 games in the regular season, and was subsequently bounced from the first round of the Big Ten Tournament by Michigan State. The Selection Committee was not impressed, leaving Ohio State off the bracket. The Buckeyes took their rage out on the NIT field, but certainly this team is hoping for better this season. Well, this was their third loss in a row, and suddenly 20 wins doesn't seem like a guarantee. Heck, I'm not sure this year's Buckeye team has a better resume than last year's, though winning a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament could change all that. That said, I think the Buckeyes were snubbed last year (I know that word gets thrown around a lot, but I think Ohio State fans definitely have a grievance. Not that it will earn them any sympathies from this year's Selection Committee).

In a matchup of the two best offensive teams in the conference, fans were treated to some defense in Michigan State's 61-50 win over Wisconsin in a 59 possession game. The Badgers couldn't throw it in the ocean in this one (they shot 31% from the field), but nonetheless led most of the way before the Spartans woke up and proceeded to demolish Wisconsin over the last 10 minutes or so. Goran Suton had his way in this one, scoring 16 points on 10 shots, to go with 10 rebounds. Trevon Hughes led the Badgers with 12 points on 12 shots. Box score. I'm sure Purdue fans were hoping the Badgers could steal one at the Breslin Center, but no such luck. There are still a couple of tough games left on Michigan State's schedule however (at Illiniois and against Purdue), so the Boilermakers are still very much in the hunt for the title.

Speaking of the Boilermakers, Purdue dispatched with Indiana, 81-67 in a 72 possession game on Saturday. With the win, Purdue retained sole possession of 2nd place. And it appears that the rumors of Robbie Hummel's demise have been greatly exaggerated, as the sophomore forward suited up and played 16 minutes in this one before running into Tom Pritchard. Hummel didn't hurt his back on the play, but the back nonetheless limits his status to day-to-day.

Of course, if his teammates can continue to shoot like this, it won't matter whether or not he's healthy. Purdue shot 54% from 3 point range and and 58% from two, led by E'Twaun Moore's 26 point outburst on just 14 shots. But Purdue's shot prowess was limited to situations when they were being guarded, as the Boilermakers shot just 55% on their numerous free throw attempts. It was Purdue's bricklaying at the line that prevented this thing from getting really ugly.

Indiana's offense wasn't all that bad in this one, considering how suffocating Purdue's defense can be. Verdell Jones led the Hoosiers with 16 points on 12 shots. Box score.

Michigan has their backs up firmly against the wall after losing in overtime to Iowa, 70-60 in a 65 possession game. Iowa absolutely dominated the extra period. Actually, Jake Kelly was the one doing the dominating, scoring 11 of Iowa's 14 points in the extra frame. Kelly finished with 23 points on 17 shots, and nearly had a triple-double with 8 rebounds and 9 assists. Stu Douglass led Michigan with 14 points on 9 shots. Box score.

Iowa wasn't expected to make a lot of noise this season, and certainly the turnover hasn't helped matters. Jeff Peterson, Anthony Tucker, and Cyrus Tate have all missed time for a variety of reasons, and those guys weren't exactly bench warmers when they were able to play. So while Iowa hasn't been able to keep up with the top half of the league, the odds were stacked against them doing so. But there's still some similar lining on Iowa's season, and part of that has been the steady play of Kelly. Like most of the other Hawkeyes, Kelly needs to cut down on the turnovers, but there's enough here for some optimism, especially if Anthony Tucker comes back next year.

For Michigan, it's not an enviable position. The Wolverines sit at 7 conference wins and probably need to get to at least 9 in order to make the Dance. So you need to win 2 out of the last 3 games on the schedule - at home against Purdue, and on the road at Wisconsin and Minnesota. Yeah, not cool. And even 2 out of 3 might not be enough if the Wolverines make an early exit from the conference tournament. In all likelihood, Michigan is going to have to make a lot of noise in Indianapolis.

This Minnesota team continues to be an enigma. The Gophers destroyed Northwestern last night 72-45 in a 62 possession game. Over their last 10 games, Minnesota has gone 4-6, and two of those wins were against Indiana. In the other two victories, the Gophers smashed their opponent (Tubby's team drubbed Illinois about a month ago at the Barn). So the skid includes a couple of dominating performances. But if you're looking for some explanation, perhaps it is the fact that the Gophers are undefeated at home except against Michigan State and Purdue (who also happen to be in 1st and 2nd place in the conference). Minnesota is powerful at home, and vulnerable on the road. It'll be interesting to see how they do in Indianapolis.

Lawrence Westbrook led Minnesota with 17 points on 10 shots, while no one for Northwestern hit double figures. Freshman John Shurna did have 9 points and 6 rebounds, however. Box score.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Pay no attention to that bricklaying man behind the curtain... I am the great and powerful Oz!

A night after presenting the nation one of the ugliest games imaginable, the Big Ten provided a much more palatable experience as Michigan shot their way over Minnesota, 74-62. This was Beilein Ball at its finest, as the Wolverines turned it over just 8 times and shot 46% from downtown while taking nearly half of their shots from distance. Minnesota must have been caught up in the excitement, as they chucked up more threes than usual. This was an awful strategy - the Gophers shot just 24% from downtown, all while their considerable height advantage was allowing them to shoot 58% inside. A few more shots - and minutes - for Minnesota's big men might have helped; Colton Iverson, Ralph Sampson, and Damian Johnson combined to shoot 8 for 10, scoring 20 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and blocking 6 shots.

Manny Harris had an off night, scoring just 8 points on 8 shots and turning it over 5 times, but his less-heralded teammates picked him up. Zack Novak hit 6 threes for his 18 points, and Kelvin Grady came off the bench to score 12 on perfect 4-for-4 shooting (including 3 shots from downtown). Box score.

This was a must-win for Michigan, as they now face 3 of 4 on the road to close the regular season (including a trip to Minnesota), and the one home game is against Purdue. As I've said before, a 9-9 conference record likely gets the Wolverines a bid (thanks to their big nonconference wins), but that's not going to be easy by any means.

For Minnesota, it's disappointing to fall back to .500 in-conference, but their remaining slate is much more forgiving. Three of their four games are at home, so it's certainly still possible for the Gophers to attain 10-8 and save themselves some stress on Selection Sunday.

In the other match-up of the night, Indiana gave Wisconsin a first-half scare, and even jumped into the lead at the start of the second half - might the Hoosiers pull this off, we started to wonder? The Badgers promptly went on an 18-2 run to answer our question with a firm 'no' and cruise to a 68-51 victory.

The high-powered Wisconsin offense just did what it does - limit turnovers (just 7 in 57 possessions), make a good percentage on threes (7 for 14 on this night), and shoot a decent percentage on twos (48.6%), all at a slow tempo that makes national observers think they're a defensive juggernaut. Trevon Hughes led the way with 21 points on 14 shots, along with 5 rebounds and 4 assists (2 turnovers). Joe Krabbenhoft was unusually offensive-minded, scoring a career-high 18 points on 11 shots.

Indiana seems to have abandoned that temporary flirtation with being a perimeter-oriented team - despite the return of Devan Dumes and a large second-half deficit, the Hoosiers attempted threes on just 26% of their shots. As you'd expect, they didn't get the main benefit of the POT - their turnovers were out of control once again. Now, I can understand not forcing bad shots, but I've got to believe that a shooter like Matt Roth could help his team by taking more than 2 shots in his 28 minutes, especially while you've got a guy like Malik Story taking 4 treys in 18 minutes (now shooting 29% from three on the season). As best I can tell Tom Crean never had a true POT at Marquette, so it's probably silly for us to expect one at IU, but it seems like it might be a decent strategy to alleviate this huge turnover problem. Just to make me look bad, Verdell Jones had a solid game without the benefit of three-pointers, scoring 16 points on 14 shots and dishing 3 assists to 2 turnovers. Box score.

Wisconsin has now won 5 straight, and their painful 6-game losing streak seems a distant memory. With 8 conference victories, the Badgers are probably 2 wins away from truly locking up a tournament bid. With home games against Michigan and Indiana still on the slate, the Badgers are in pretty good shape.

The Big Ten gets rolling again on Saturday with the only regular season match-up between rivals Purdue and Indiana (1pm CT, Big Ten Network).

Sunday will be the busy day, with 4 meaningful match-ups:

  • Illinois looks to get their offense back on track (a serious understatement) against the bubbly Buckeyes. If Ohio State can just defend home court the rest of the way, they likely secure an NCAA Tournament bid (12pm CT, CBS).
  • Wisconsin travels to Michigan State in a game that would be a big bonus for the Badgers. Ending their winning streak in East Lansing would not hurt their resume much, but a win would be absolutely huge. The Spartans need to keep winning to hold off Purdue (2pm CT, ESPN).
  • Michigan visits Iowa in desperate need of wins during a tough homestretch. The Hawkeyes gave Purdue a scare in their last home game, so the Wolverines have their work cut out for them (4pm CT, Big Ten Network).
  • Northwestern hopes to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes on life support with a win at Minnesota. The Gophers will be looking to avenge their earlier loss in Evanston and need wins themselves to lock up their NCAA bid (6pm CT, Big Ten Network).

Should make for a great weekend of hoops!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hey buddy, think Penn State can hold this halftime lead? Wait, it's over?!

In an absolutely ugly game, Penn State free-throwed their way to victory over an enigmatic Illinois squad, 38-33 in a slow 56 possessions. This was the lowest scoring game in all of D1 this season - are you still upset you don't get the Big Ten Network? There were no offensive positives in this game - both teams had a TO Rate north of 23%, neither team hit the offensive glass, and both squads shot a percentage in the low 30s. The only difference was at the foul line - Penn State only got 11 attempts (making 9), but that's a whole lot better than ZERO. That's right, Illinois didn't attempt a single free throw - on their home court no less. That seems a little off, but an astute observer might have seen something like this coming - Illinois came in as the second-worst team in the nation at getting to the line, while Penn State's defense was 9th nationally in preventing free throw attempts. Needless to say, this game will push the two teams even further into those extremes. It will be interesting to see what happens when Illinois plays AT Penn State in two weeks - is it possible to have negative free throw attempts?

Talor Battle was the only player in double figures with 11 points (on 11 shots). Penn State's forgotten bench came up big - Chris Babb, Cammeron Woodyard, and Andrew Ott combined for 13 points (9 shots), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and no turnovers. If these guys can start to produce, Penn State gets a lot tougher. For Illinois, the only real highlight was Mike Tisdale's 10 rebounds (including a career-high 8 defensive). A rebounding Tisdale would help the Illini defense immensely down the stretch. Box score.

As far as the ugliness goes, I'm sure Penn State fans care little about aesthetics - this is a huge win in their quest for an at-large bid. The Nittany Lions now sit at 19-8 (8-6), and they've still got a home match-up with Indiana left on the schedule. Just win that one, and Penn State finishes 9-9 in the #2 conference (RPI-wise) in the nation - you've gotta figure that resume (including road wins against Michigan State and Illinois) would get the Nittany Lions some serious consideration on Selection Sunday.

For Illinois, this was another frustrating game in which their normally decent offense just disappeared, except this time it occurred at home. Once again, it felt like Illinois was getting their usual shots, but they just weren't falling. This inconsistency might be a nasty side effect of relying so heavily on mid-range jumpers. The Illini will have to regroup quickly, as they have a tough road match-up with Ohio State this weekend.

I'm beginning to wonder if Illinois and Northwestern somehow entered a strange form of quantum entanglement after their wild finish in Evanston last week (hey, you were warned that we are geeks) - while the Illini's offensive spin was decidedly inept last night, the Wildcats put on an offensive show in defeating Ohio State, 72-69 in just 59 possessions. Both teams were making it rain from deep - Jon Diebler hit 8 of 10 from downtown, while Kevin Coble and Craig Moore combined to go 11 for 18. The biggest three, however, came from Northwestern freshman John Shurna with 3 seconds left to provide the final margin.

Diebler scored 28 points on just 11 shots, and had only 1 turnover in his 40 minutes. Evan Turner chipped in 14 on 9 shots, along with 6 assists and 5 rebounds, but turned it over a costly 8 times. Ohio State could really use a true point guard on this team. For Northwestern, Kevin Coble was uber-efficient, scoring 26 on 15 shots and dishing 3 assists to no turnovers. Craig Moore was just as good - 23 points on 15 shots, 5 assists and 1 turnover. Box score.

The biggest difference in this game was the turnovers - Northwestern was typically careful with the ball, while Ohio State continued the turnover issues that have plagued them all season. The Buckeyes now drop into the 4-team bunching in the middle of the conference, all with six losses. Ohio State still looks like an NCAA Tournament team to me (with no bad losses and wins over Miami, Butler, and Purdue), but the road is certainly not easy. A win on Saturday over Illinois would go a long way towards securing that bid.

Northwestern continues to play pretty well and finally got a close victory after dropping three straight nail-biters. This is a team that's good enough to be in the bubble discussion but has likely been doomed by all the close losses. Even winning out (not an easy task with 4 of 5 on the road, including Minnesota and Purdue) would put the Wildcats at 19-10 (10-8), with a borderline top-50 RPI (according to the excellent RPIforecast.com). There's still a sliver of hope for Northwestern to get their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, but it's an incredibly tough road. The NIT looks like a more attainable goal, which would certainly be progress for this basketball program.

Tonight, Michigan and Minnesota square off in Ann Arbor in a game with serious implications for both teams. Michigan figures to need at least 3 more conference wins to make the NCAA Tournament (finishing 9-9), and this is their next-to-last home game (the other is a tough one against Purdue). Minnesota has a little more breathing room, but a winnable road game is always important for a team looking to lock up a bid. Tip-off is at 6pm CT on the Big Ten Network.

The other match-up has Wisconsin looking to continue their 4-game winning streak and avoid becoming Indiana's second Big Ten victim. A stumble here could ultimately prove costly to the Badgers (they are, after all, just 7-6), so they'll hope to take care of business in Bloomington. Flip over to ESPN at 8pm to catch this one.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The race for the Big Ten title gets an extended run

Purdue waxed Michigan State in the second half last night, prevailing 72-54 in a 71 possession game. The Boilermakers exploded offensively in the second half, scoring 46 points while shooting 53%. Robbie Hummel had a nice game in his return, scoring 11 points on 9 shots, but it was really JaJuan Johnson who did most of the damage, scoring 17 on just 7 shots. Kalin Lucas had 14 points on 11 shots for the Spartans, but he also committed 6 turnovers. Box score.

Indeed, turnovers were was did in Michigan State. Although this game was fast-paced at 71 possessions, 22 turnovers is just way too many against a team like Purdue. The Boilermakers were also their usual suffocating selves, limited MSU's eFG to just 34.5%. All in all, it was by far the worst game offensively for Tom Izzo's team all season - save the debacle against UNC at Ford Field. In fact, MSU's offense was just as ineffective as it was in that game. So give Matt Painter's team a lot of credit here, because it's not easy to slow these guys down.

So it appears that there's still some life left for the chase for the conference title. Michigan State still has the inside track, of course, but Purdue also controls their own destiny. Win out - including the season finale against the Spartans in East Lansing - and they will secure at least a tie for the Big Ten title. Now that Robbie Hummel appears to be healthy, they have a reasonable shot.

Tonight, Penn State visits Illinois and Northwestern hosts Ohio State. The Buckeyes and the Illini both need to win to keep pace with Purdue and Michigan State.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Big Ten Championship - Tonight!

Tonight's tilt between Purdue and Michigan State was circled on everyone's calendar before the year started. After all, these two teams were not only really good last season, but they also returned a lot of minutes. For Michigan State, the plan has gone off without a hitch, even as their best player continues to miss time due to pneumonia. Raymar Morgan has missed MSU's last three games, but he really hasn't been himself since mid-January. For all practical purposes, the Spartans have played without their star for the last eight games. They've gone 6-2 in that stretch as well.

Purdue has also been missing perhaps its best player as well, but the Boilermakers haven't handled it nearly as well. A healthy Hummel was last seen sometime after tipoff in the Big Ten opener against Illinois - Hummel left the game on crutches, and his availability has been spotty ever since. The Boilers have been 1-3 in games without Hummel, and 7-1 without him. That said, the narrative of "Purdue with Hummel = awesome, Purdue without Hummel = terrible" is too simple. Hummel's 2 points and 4 rebounds probably didn't drive the Boilermakers to victory over Iowa, and 5 & 7 line didn't earn him MVP honors in the victory over Minnesota either. The truth is that even when Hummel has played, he hasn't always been himself. That's not unexpected with this kind of injury. Some days, the pain is worse.

So here we are at the first matchup between these teams, and one of them looks like a Final Four contender, while the other looks like a Big Ten Tournament semifinalist. Ok, so it's not quite the matchup everybody was expecting, but I think it should provide just as much drama.

Supposedly, Hummel is now at full strength, even if Morgan isn't. That's good news for Purdue, not to mention Ohio State and Illinois. At 7-5 and 9-4 respectively, the Buckeyes and the Illini are the only other two teams with something more than a prayer of a chance of catching the Spartans. Yes, it's possible that Michigan State drops games against Iowa and Wisconsin at home, and Indiana on the road. Possible, but unlikely. Really, Michigan State has only a couple of formidable challenges left on their schedule - tonight's game against Purdue, and March 1st in Champaign.

For Michigan State, this isn't just about securing conference bragging rights. Win out, and they probably are a #1 seed come Selection Sunday. Truth be told, I don't think it should take that much. Sure, at first Michigan State showed a little trouble getting out of second gear, but now their efficiency margin is truly #1 seed material. Nonetheless, the "Big Ten lacks an elite team" headline has been present all season, and it's proving hard to shake now.

Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State are also worried about seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it's useless to worry, because there seems to be some sort of forcefield keeping second place Big Ten teams out of the upper four seeds. And Michigan State definitely counts as a signature win that could bust one or more of them through that barrier.

For a good numbers based preview, Spartans Weblog has that covered. The outcome of the game may ride on how Purdue is shooting from the perimeter. Despite featuring the conference's best post player, the Boilers have been more effective from outside the perimeter than inside of it. It's hard to figure out if that's good or bad news against Michigan State. On the one hand, opponents sure love shooting 3s against the Spartans, even though their shotblocking isn't great. Which means that the opponents think these threes are good shots. But MSU also leads the conference in opponents' three point percentage, which raises a bit of a quandry. Are teams mistaken in their belief that these are good shots? Or has MSU gotten unbelievably lucky? Are there depth perception issues in the Breslin Center? On paper, it's a great result - MSU opponents are taking a lot of shots that they frequently miss. But I still don't understand why it's happening. Perhaps the Izzone can chime in here.

In any case, for the Boilers to win this one, they probably need some solid outside shooting. Hummel's presence should help here, but it wouldn't hurt if Purdue got some makes from who-dat extraordinaire, Bobby Riddell (now shooting 67% from 3 on the season). Keep an eye on Boilermakers roaming the perimeter.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bo Ryan is the snake to Thad Matta's mongoose, or the mongoose to his snake

Wisconsin's 55-50 victory over Ohio State on Saturday illustrated that shooting isn't everything. The Buckeyes came in as the Big Ten's best shooting team, and they certainly didn't slow down in Madison, posting an effective field goal percentage of 57.9. Wisconsin, on the other hand, was miserable from the field, with an eFG of 40.0. But the Buckeyes turned it over on a third of their possessions, while Bo Ryan's team collected 44% of their misses. The result was Wisconsin attempting 17 more shots than Ohio State. It's not often a team can make up that kind of shooting accuracy gap, but Wisconsin executed the blueprint for doing so. Marcus Landry led the Badgers with 17 points on 16 shots, and also grabbed 7 rebounds. Evan Turner led the Buckeyes with 23 points on 13 shots, and had 5 assists (6 turnovers, however). Box score.

Now standing at 7-6 in the conference with two games remaining against Indiana, the Badgers are rounding into form. Really, this team isn't all that different from the one that lost four close games in January, but Wisconsin fans probably feel better about them nonetheless. They don't have a NCAA Tournament bid locked up quite just yet, but the prognosis is looking pretty good.

For Ohio State, on the other hand, this might be the beginning of a slide. It's not that the Buckeyes are displaying any weaknesses that weren't already present, but the schedule does get tougher for them. If Thad Matta's team does suffer a late-season slide, we'll probably hear a lot about how the freshmen lost their composure, or how David Lighty's calming presence on the court was sorely missed, but the bigger factor might be the schedule. There are only a couple of likely wins on OSU's schedule, with a fair amount of toss-ups remaining. If things break right, the Buckeyes could go 5-1 in this stretch. But they could also go 2-4. It will probably be somewhere in the middle.

Much of ESPN's coverage of this game was filled with eyeroll-inducing comments from Dan Shulman about the style of play in Big Ten conference games (despite it's just-as-slow tempo, the Pac 10 doesn't seem to suffer from this same image problem), but I did find the comments Thad Matta made to the broadcast crew to be interesting. Apparently, Coach Matta said that if Evan Turner, William Buford, and B. J. Mullens all decide to turn pro after the season, he's "done." Of course, Coach Matta isn't going anywhere anytime soon, but his frustration is real. But does any of this come as a surprise? I don't know if any of those players are ready for the NBA this season, but I do know that a lot of experts think so, and their relative talents were not exactly well-kept secrets in high school either. Frankly, that's the cost of filling up a team with All-American caliber recruits - sometime soon, someone is going to come along and offer them millions of dollars to play basketball professionally. Surely though, Matta is just fine with this bargain - he rode it all the way to a Final Four appearance a couple of seasons ago. If he wanted to do things differently, obviously he could (in fact, Bo Ryan does just the opposite, and is very successful with his strategy). But judging from his incoming classes, nothing's going to change in Columbus. Expect recruiting riches, lots of attrition, and a fair amount of winning as well. Matta doesn't build teams as much as he creates them every season, but he's shown he win with that approach.

It was a tale of two halves in Penn State's 68-63 win over Minnesota. In the first half, neither of these teams could make a shot, they turned it over a combined 22 times, and scored all of 47 points. In the second half, they lit the nets on fire with 16 threes, took care of the ball, and scored 84 points. Penn State soon figured out that it was futile to try and score over the shotblocking Gophers on the inside, and kept the ball out on the perimeter, shooting 11-23 from 3 on the game. Talor Battle broke out of his funk for 23 points on 14 shots, while Devoe Joseph led Minnesota with 23 points on 11 shots, including 7 of 8 from 3 point range. Box score.

With the win, Penn State is looking good for securing an NCAA bid, but they still might need to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament, depending on how they finish out the season. Minnesota probably has a little less work to do given their undefeated record in non-conference play, which included a convincing win over Louisville. But even the Gophers are not locks at this point. If either one of these teams falters down the stretch, they could be looking at "last team out" status.

Also on Saturday, Purdue squeaked out a win over Iowa, 49-45 in a 52 possession game. The four point margin wasn't all that impressive, and really, it should have been larger judging from the four factors. Iowa had a couple more offensive rebounds, a couple less turnovers, and made a couple more free throws, but Purdue shot the ball much better than the Hawkeyes did. In any case, we got the result most everyone expected in this one, as Purdue remains in the title hunt. The only real interesting stat from this one is that the Boilers didn't force many turnovers, even here against the turnover-prone Hawkeyes. This has been an issue all through the conference season, as Purdue's pressure defense is apparently stuck in 2008. E'Twaun Moore led Purdue with 16 points on 14 shots, to go along with 10 rebounds. Jake Kelly led Iowa with 19 points on 17 shots. Box score.

On Sunday, Illinois took care of business at Indiana, winning 65-52 in a 59 possession game. Illinois' rebounding, which has been problematic all season, was working just fine in this one. The Illini grabbed 40% of their misses, and also rebounded 74% of Indiana's misses. IU was without go-to offensive player Devan Dumes, who is serving his time in Tom Crean's doghouse from some rough play against Michigan State. Illinois' All Mike Frontcourt combined for 32 points on 24 shots and 16 rebounds. Matt Roth led the way for the Hoosiers with 13 points on 7 shots. Box score.

Michigan won a thriller over Northwestern, 70-67 in a 66 possession game. This was a tight one throughout, and featured nice games from two of the conference's best offensive players. Kevin Coble led the Wildcats with 23 points on 17 shots, while Manny Harris put up 26 on just 15 shots. Harris has had some big games in the conference season, but he's also completely disappeared in some games. I know I'm not alone in thinking the young man might test the waters after this season, but as good as he is, I'm not sure that he's ready. A bit more consistency is something Harris will need to work on next season. Box score.

This was a pivotal game for both teams. For Michigan, it keeps them in the hunt for a Tournament bid, for now, but John Beilein's team has a brutal home stretch, with 3 road games and home matchups against Minnesota and Purdue. Win three of those games, and I think the Wolverines go dancing. Win less than that, and there will be a lot of fingernail biting in Ann Arbor.

For Northwestern, this probably brings their Tournament hopes to a close, barring a miracle. I think eight conference wins is probably the minimum amount needed for real consideration from the Selection Committee, and Bill Carmody's team finishes the season with 2 home games and 4 road games. One of those road games is at Indiana, which increases the odds a bit, but they still need to win at Minnesota, Purdue, or Ohio State to get to 8-10 in conference play. And that's just to get on the bubble.

Tonight, the conference has the night off before Michigan State visits Purdue. If Michigan State pulls this one out, they will all but lock up the conference title.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Big Ten has the best set of coaches when it comes to tourney performance

This is a guest post from Pete Tiernan, who has been using stats to analyze March Madness for 19 years. His insights into the NCAA basketball tournament can help you build a better bracket. We're hoping he can help us understand why 12 seeds dominate 5 seeds. E-mail him here or visit bracketscience.com.

On the Big Ten Network's telecast of the Michigan State-Penn State game, commentator Tim McCormick said something that got me to thinking. He proclaimed that the Big Ten had the best coaches of any conference in the country.

Strong words. Fighting words, in fact, among fans of the ACC, Big East and SEC. At first I passed it off as just the kind of thing a former Michigan player—and possible “Big Ten homer”—might say. Then I decided to see if McCormick was right, at least as it pertained to performance in the NCAA tournament since 1985, when the tourney expanded to 64 teams. After all, the big dance is where coaches really make their reputations and build their programs.

So here’s what I did: I grouped all the coaches from each of the Big Six conferences and compared their cumulative performance in the tourney based on win/loss records, accomplishments, and, most importantly, performance against seed expectations, or PASE. I wanted to see which conference had the stable of coaches that most exceeded the number of wins that their seeding suggested they should achieve.

A quick word about PASE: We the PASE statistic compares a coach’s actual win total to the amount he should’ve won based on his seed. Over the last 24 years, each seed has recorded an average number of wins per tourney. Top seeds win 3.42 games each tourney, two seeds win 2.41, three seeds win 1.82 and so on. When a top seed wins only two games, it underperforms by 1.42 games—despite a solid 2-1 record and top-ten caliber .667 winning percentage. If you add up a coach’s year-by-year performance, you can arrive at the average games per tourney it deviated from the expected victory total. Let’s take Tom Izzo as an example. In his 11 appearances, Izzo should’ve won 18.3 games based on seeding; he actually won 26. That’s about 7.7 games above expectations for a PASE of +.704. That’s very good. In fact, of coaches with at least 10 tourney appearances, only Rick Pitino has a better PASE (+.766)

So back to Tim’s claim that the Big Ten has the best group of coaches: After crunching the numbers, guess what? I agree with Tim. Check it out:
The 11 coaches in the Big Ten have been the biggest overachievers of any set of Big Six conference coaches. Based on the seeding positions of their 62 tourney appearances, the Big Ten coaches should’ve won 83.3 games. They actually won 105 games, which works out to a hefty +.349 PASE—more than a third of a game per dance. Just as importantly, the Big Ten coaches have beaten seed expectations in 35 of their 62 tourney appearances, for a seed overachievement rate (SOAR) of 56.5 percent.

Heck, all you have to do is look at the individual PASE values of the 11 Big Ten coaches to see that their a strong bunch of overachievers. You might think that Tom Izzo’s +.704 PASE would lead the way, but John Beilein’s +.865 PASE is the highest among all active coaches with at least four tourney appearances. And Todd Lickliter owns a gaudy +1.172 PASE from his two seed-defying runs with Butler. Then there’s Bruce Weber (+.410), Tubby Smith (+.351), Thad Matta (+.328) and Bo Ryan (+.126)—all tourney overachievers. In fact, even the conference’s underachieving coaches aren’t exactly embarrassing. Matt Painter’s PASE is -.135, Tom Crean’s is -.152, and Ed DeChellis’s is -.146. Only Bill Carmody’s -.352 PASE is significantly below seed expectations. Put it all together, and it’s no wonder that the Big Ten has pulled off some surprise wins this season, despite not being the nation’s most talented conference.

Compare the 11 Big Ten coaches to the 16 Big East coaches, the next best overperforming group. Their +.167 PASE constitutes about a sixth-of-a-game per tourney overachievement—nothing to sneeze at, but nowhere near the solid performance of the Big Ten. What’s more, Big East coaches have overachieved in only 43 of their 98 appearances, for a more unreliable ROAR of 43.9 percent. Granted, Big East coaches have reached the Final Four more than Big Ten coaches (12 to eight) and won more championships (four to two). But in terms of their ability to defy seed expectations, the Big Ten is solidly ahead of the Big East.

The same goes for the ACC. Yes, ACC coaches have compiled a better record (.678 to .636), more Final Four appearances (16 to eight) and championships (five to two) than the Big Ten coaches. But their PASE is just +.136. That’s actually lower than the +.160 PASE that the conference itself—including retired coaches—has achieved. Besides, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have accounted for 16 of the Final Four appearances and four of the crowns all by themselves. And the ACC coaches’ average seed position has been 4.54, almost two seed positions higher than the Big Ten coaches (6.27). So you’d expect them to accomplish more. Finally, ACC coaches have beaten seed expectations only 44.6 percent of the time—12 percent lower than that of their Big Ten counterparts.

The only other stable of coaches that has overachieved as a group is the SEC. In 46 appearances, the SEC coaches are 3.4 wins above seed expectations, for a PASE of +.075. That’s decent…but this isn’t: SEC coaches have overperformed in only 19 of their 46 tourney trips. That works out to a ROAR of just 41.3 percent—the lowest of any coaching group among the power conferences. In fairness to the SEC, it’s a pretty inexperienced bunch. On average, the 12 coaches have just 3.83 tourney appearances under their belts.

The SEC isn’t the greenest group of coaches, however. That distinction belongs to the Big 12. The conference’s 12 coaches have just 41 appearances among them, for an average of just 3.42 per coach. What’s more, Big 12 coaches have failed to live up to seed expectations. Granted, they’re only about one win away from their 48 seed-projected win total. But it’s underachievement nonetheless. Big 12 fans can take solace in one fact, though. Their coaches have overperformed with greater regularity than any other stable of Big Six coaches except the Big Ten. In 20 of their 41 appearances, Big 12 coaches have defied seed expectations, for a solid 48.9 percent ROAR.

And that brings us to the Pac-10 coaches. The conference itself has not fared well in the tourney. The 98 Pac-10 squads that have entered the dance since 1985 own an underachieving PASE of -.176. That’s not just the worst among Big Six conferences; it’s the worst of any conference, including the Mid-Majors and Smalls. This is all a long way around offering Pac-10 fans a little consolation prize. Yes, your current stable of coaches is the weakest tourney performers among the Big Six conference coaches. But the PASE of Pac-10 coaches is just -.083, meaning that this current group is better than the usual Pac-10 group. And here’s one more thing to crow about: Pac-10 coaches have overperformed against seed expectations in 20 of 44 appearances for a ROAR of 45.5 percent. That’s third best among the Big Six, better than the Big East, the ACC and the SEC. Not too shabby. Of course, this stable of Pac-10 coaches has yet to win a championship among them—and no other conference is saddled with that stigma. So let’s not get carried away.

Bottom line: as far as tournament performance goes, Tim McCormick is absolutely right to say that the Big Ten has the best group of coaches of any conference in the country. You can debate whether the tourney ought to be the final word on this debate, but there’s no debating that Big Ten coaches have been the biggest overachievers of the modern tourney era. Let’s see if they can translate their collective performances into greater representation in the late rounds of the 2009 dance.

Ghosts of Illini Past

There was something spooky about Illinois' thrilling 60-59 win over Northwestern last night - how eerily familiar it all was. Of course, Illinois and Northwestern matchups have not been all that competitive of late. In their only meeting last season, for instance, the Illini pounded the Wildcats by 33 points. The year before, Illinois swept the season series, winning both games by double digits. In fact, the Fighting Illini have now won 10 straight over Bill Carmody's team, and last night's contest was easily the closest in that span.

But that wasn't why this game was so familiar. Rather, it seemed like two Illini teams were haunting the present squad in Welsh-Ryan arena. First up was last year's squad, led by seniors Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt. These players were gifted rebounders, but horrible free throw shooters. As a team last season, the Illini shot just 60.8% from the free throw line. This year, they're at 71.3%. But last night, Bruce Weber's team looked positively 2008, shooting 2-12 from the charity stripe. Hindered by this terrible display, the Illini dug themselves into a 14 point deficit with about 5 minutes to play.

And that's when Illinois was greeted by its second visitor - the 2004-05 version of the Fighting Illini. If you were to rank the greatest moments in the program's history, that team's comeback against Arizona in the Elite Eight surely sits near the top. And last night, the Illini put on the same kind of show. No, the game wasn't nearly as important (unlike the '05 team, Demetri McCamey and company were not playing for a trip to the Final Four. All they were playing for was the elusive 2nd road win in conference play), but the comeback was nearly as impressive. Shooting guard Trent Meacham stole the show, scoring 13 points in the game's final five minutes, and also forcing a key turnover to set up McCamey's game winner (off a dish from Meacham), the final two of McCamey's team high 21 points. Luka Mirkovic led the Wildcats with 14 points on 7 shots, to go with 12 rebounds. Box score.

Our movies and books tell us that after someone is visited by some benevolent ghost, it's to teach them a lesson. I'm not sure what the lesson was last night (Make your free throws. Actually, nevermind.), but in any case, it was a big win for a team trying to keep pace with the other teams vying for 2nd place in the conference.

For Northwestern, this was a heartbreaking loss, no doubt about it. It was a winnable game against a top 20 opponent, a signature win sure to catch the attention of the Selection Committee. Frankly, the Wildcats have been a dollar short all season. Close losses against Butler, Stanford, Purdue, Penn State, Iowa, and now Illinois could have all easily been wins but for a bad possession or two. A tournament appearance is still possible, but that dream is starting to slip away. Looking at the remainder of the schedule, even if the Wildcats win 4 out of their remaining 7 games, they would likely still have some work to do in the Big Ten Tournament.

The conference has the night off before play resumes Saturday. Wisconsin will host Ohio State and ESPN's Gameday crew - no doubt we'll be hearing lots about the Big Ten's physical play this season.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Somebody wake up Talor Battle

It might not look like much, but Purdue dominated Penn State last night, 61-47. Given how slow this game was (56 possessions), it was actually more convincing than the 14 points might indicate. The most impressive part, however, might have been that the Boilermakers held Talor Battle scoreless. Really, the only offensive weapon the Nittany Lions had all night was Jamelle Cornley, who scored 16 points on 14 shots. Scoring on the inside was particularly difficult for Penn State, as they shot 36.7% from two point range. Purdue swatted seven shots, led by JaJuan Johnson's four blocks.

On the other side of the ball, Purdue scored nearly 1.1 points per possession. Four Boilermakers scored in double figures, led by Johnson's 14/13 double-double. Neither E'Twaun Moore or Keaton Grant had great games, but Purdue got an unexpected boost from Nemanja Calasan and Bobby Riddell, who combined for 25 points on 13 shots. Box score.

This was Penn State's third disappointing offensive performance in a row, and not coincidentally, Battle has scored all of 19 points on those three games. The defense isn't going to carry the Nittany Lions this season, so if Ed DeChellis' team is going anywhere this season, Battle needs to get back to normal.

Also last night,Wisconsin cruised past Iowa, 69-52 in a 53 possession game. That's a pretty high point total for a game this slow. Unfortunately for Iowa, the offense was all on Wisconsin's side of the ball. The Badgers didn't turn it over often, didn't miss often, and when they did, they often got the rebound. In all, Bo Ryan's team scored 1.3 points per possession, led by Jason Bohannon and Joe Krabbenhoft, who combined for 31 points on 18 shots. Badger fans hope that Krabbenhoft remains this assertive through the rest of the season. The guy has shown that he can score when he wants to.

For Iowa, the result was typical - too many turnovers offset some pretty nice shooting, and oh yeah the defense was terrible. Todd Lickliter is in the unfortunate position of rebuilding in only his second season, so this year's goal is really to make sure they finish ahead of Indiana. Frankly, I don't think Hawkeyes fans should have been expecting much more, given the roster overhaul. The good news is that they've gotten a lot of contributions out of underclassmen, which bodes well for the future. Last night was another example, as Jake Kelly scored 17 points on 9 shots (though he was also emblematic of Iowa's struggles, as he also committed five turnovers). Box score.

Tonight, Illinois will try to keep pace at Northwestern.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Michigan on the ropes, sloppy ball in The Barn

Michigan State all but ended Michigan's hopes of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, defeating the Wolverines 54-42 in a very slow defensive struggle. Neither of these teams will be confused with the Tar Heels anytime soon, but the 55 possessions was still surprising. Add some mediocre shooting, and you get a low scoring game. In fact, even Michigan State's normally reliable offensive rebounding was off last night, as the Spartans collected just 30% of the available boards on offense. But they did shoot the ball just a touch better than the Wolverines, and got to the line where they converted.

It wasn't a bad game for Michigan, considering they took away MSU's offensive game plan (throw it at the hoop, and go get it). But it was yet another game that featured horrid outside shooting for the Wolverines. More than anything else, that has sunk Michigan this season. Coming into conference play, this was one of the better offensive teams in the nation. But that offense has been firmly in the bottom half of the conference since that point.

The Wolverines sit at 5-7, and you figure that they need 3 wins, at minimum, to get to the Dance. At home against Minnesota figures to be the easiest chance for a victory, and visiting Iowa looks like a winnable game. But after that? Facing Purdue in Ann Arbor? Wisconsin at the Kohl Center? The Wildcats in Evanston? None of these sound like attractive options, and that might be why Michigan is headed to the NIT right now.

As for Michigan State, well, they're the only team that's in the upper-right hand quandrant, so they don't have many problems these days.

DeShawn Sims was the only player for Michigan in double figures, with 18 points on 14 shots. Kalin Lucas led the Spartans with 15 points on 8 shots, and Delvon Roe posted a nice double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Box score.

If Tom Crean had told his team to just shoot the ball from halfcourt every time they got that far, the offense probably would have been better off last night. Instead, Indiana turned it over on 39 %(!) of their possessions en route to losing at Minnesota, 62-54. The fact that the score was this close is actually, pretty impressive. In fact, when IU wasn't turning the ball over, they scored 1.35 points per possession. Had the Hoosiers only turned it over on, say, their season average of 25% of their possessions, they would have won this game by 4 based on that scoring rate.

But give credit to Tubby's team, which thrives off forcing turnovers, for its defense. But Minnesota was pretty sloppy with the ball as well in this one, turning it over on 29% of their possessions. Minnesota made up for it by rebounding half of their misses, which is actually a bit of a feat against the Hoosiers, one of the Big Ten's best defensive rebounding teams. Paul Carter grabbed three of those offensive rebounds, and also broke out for 22 points on 13 shots. Verdell Jones led Indiana with 18 points on 8 shots. Box score.

To give you an idea of how cluttered the Big Ten is now, 8 teams are now within 2 losses of each other. Whenever two of these teams play each other, it's a "huge" game. I'm sure the coaches are running out of euphimisms at this point. I know I am.

Tonight, Iowa visits the Kohl Center and Penn State travels to Purdue in a game relatively larger-sized than most.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Big Ten is now interviewing applicants for second place

Yesterday, Illinois posted a convincing 66-48 win over Purdue, sweeping the season series over the Boilermakers. This was a hard fought game in the first half, with Illinois leading by just four points. But the Illini amped up the defense even more, holding Purdue to 28% shooting in the second half, solidifying their status as the Big Ten's best defensive team. Outside of Lewis Jackson and JaJuan Johnson, nothing was working for the Boilers. And even those two weren't all that efficient (29 points on 26 shots). A big part of the struggles, no doubt, is Robbie Hummel's absence. But there's also the fact that Keaton Grant and E'Twaun Moore still have not shown up this year. At least, not last year's version of the shooting guards. Johnson has been the only consistent offensive option all season, but as good as he is (and he is good - best post player in the Big Ten?), he can't win games all by himself.

Illinois got a lift for the second straight game from Mike Davis, who finished with 14 points on 14 shots, to go along with 16 rebounds. Davis has been one of the premier defensive rebounders in the conference, which is a good thing considering how little rebounding Illinois gets out of Mike Tisdale (yesterday - 1 rebound in 28 minutes). Box score.

The only fanbase happier with this win than Illinois' was Michigan State's. Purdue had won 6 out of their last 7 coming into this one, and was beginning to look like the Purdue of last year. But without offensive options beyond Johnson, I don't see the Boilermakers catching up to the Spartans.

On Saturday, Michigan State ended Indiana's one game winning streak, defeating the Hoosiers 75-47 in a 70 possession game. This was one of the fastest non-overtime games of the season, and despite that, Indiana failed to hit 50 points in this one. Give a lot of credit to the Spartan defense, which took away every aspect of Indiana's offense, with the exception of free throw attempts. The Hoosiers shot very poorly (34.5 eFG), and despite all those misses, only grabbed six offensive rebounds. Oh, and that turnover bug was back after a couple game off, as Tom Crean's team coughed it up 21 times. A hangover from the victory over Iowa? Perhaps, but Michigan State at the Breslin Center is a tough team.

Speaking of those Spartans, Tom Izzo's squad is starting to look more like a conference champion with every game. That efficiency margin has crept above 0.15 on the conference season, a number more befitting of a first place team (for reference, last year's champ, Wisconsin, posted a 0.18 margin in conference play). And keep in mind, Michigan State has played quite a bit of the conference slate without a healthy Raymar Morgan. Perhaps the Big Ten does have a team capable of making a deep tournament run after all. There's still some time left, but right now in the Big Ten, there's Michigan State, and then there's everybody else.

With Morgan out, Draymond Green stepped up with 15 points on just 5 shots, to go along with 12 rebounds. Verdell Jones led the Hoosiers with 13 points on 8 shots. Box score.

Sometimes you look at a box score, and it's just plain weird. The the box score for Iowa's 56-51 win over Northwestern definitely fit that description. For instance, Todd Lickliter's crew took the perimeter oriented attack to an extreme, devoting 30 of their 40 field goal attempts to three pointers. Ok, that's pretty strange, but it gets stranger. Despite this outside shooting attack, Iowa went to the free throw line 18 times. But even Northwestern's play was a bit odd, specifically, the fact that Craig Moore attempted 37.5% of their shots. And all 18 of his shots were three pointers. He made six of those to lead Northwestern with 20 points. Gatens spearheaded the Iowa attack with 13 points on 6 shots. Box score.

Iowa pulled off a rare trick in this game as well - winning despite turning it over on a third of their possessions. They did so by shooting 40% on their numerous three point attempts and by rebounding nearly half of their misses. At this point, Iowa is playing for a spot in the NIT. They still have four home games left, so that goal remains attainable.

For Northwestern, this was devastating for its NCAA chances. This was a winnable road game that would have pulled the team to .500 in conference play. Now their backs are firmly against the wall, as they will have to spring an upset or two in order to reach the Dance.

Speaking of upsets, Michigan nearly toppled another giant before succumbing to Connecticut, 69-61 in a 64 possession game on Saturday. The Wolverines looked like the same team that topped UCLA and Duke prior to conference play - the one that forced turnovers and limited their own. But the same bugaboo that has afflicted Michigan in conference play sprang up here - poor outside shooting. John Beilein's team was just 31% from beyond the arc, and for a POT, that's bad news. On top of that, the Wolverines were terrible on the defensive glass, allowing UConn to rebound over half of their misses. Of course, UConn's done that to a few teams. Stu Douglass led Michigan with 20 points on 10 shots, while Jerome Dyson had 19 points on 13 shots for the Huskies. Box score.

It's moot now, but had Michigan won this game, it would have been their third victory over a top 10 team this season. Normally, that bodes well for a team's NCAA chances. But even with that on their resume, it might not have been enough. Michigan has 5 conference wins right now, and there's not a game left on the schedule that looks like anything better than a 50/50 proposition right now. And really, there's only a couple of those. Signature wins are great, but they have to be accompanied with steady conference play. And unless the Wolverines get to 7 or 8 wins in the conference season, I'm afraid I don't see them making the Tournament, no matter how many times they took down Goliath.

Ohio State survived Blake Hoffarber's second half impression of Stephen Curry in defeating Minnesota, 64-58 in a 63 possession game. The Hoff was scoreless in the first half, but lit up the Buckeyes for 19 points in the last 20 minutes. But the hole the Gophers dug themselves with turnovers proved to be too deep. It was a missed opportunity - the last time Ohio State was held to an eFG under 50.0, they were beaten by 18 points. Surprisingly, Thad Matt's squad took good care of the ball against Minnesota's pressure defense, turning it over just ten times. The Buckeyes have struggled in that department in conference play, in part because they just don't have a point guard. It's a credit to Evan Turner's ability that he's filled that role with moderate success. But the bigger culprit might be Dallas Lauderdale. While the big man is a terror defensively, he's a liability on the other end of the floor. Maybe Matta is seeing the same thing that I am, because Lauderdale played just 12 minutes in this one. Part of that is surely the improving play of B. J. Mullens as well, however. Turner led the Buckeyes with 18 points on 14 shots, to go along with 10 rebounds. Box score.

These two teams appear to be heading in different directions. The Gophers' thrashing of Illinois hid their slide a bit, but now the team is just 2-4 in their last six games, and that win at Indiana was too close for comfort as well. Ohio State meanwhile has won their last four. Seeding figures to be a big deal in this year's Big Ten Tournament, so these final few games will be critical for both teams.

Stylistically, Wisconsin's road win over Penn State was not very interesting. Yes, it was a slow game (55 possessions), and it had a correspondingly low score (54-44). But that's not what put me to sleep. No it was the fact that neither team forced turnovers nor grabbed offensive rebounds in this game. There were only 13 turnovers total, and just 11 offensive boards between the two teams. Basically, the game went like this - one team would dribble the ball up the floor against zero pressure, and take a shot. If it was a two pointer, it probably went in (both teams shot 53% from two point range) . If it was a three, there was very little chance it did (Wisconsin shot 21% from 3, while Penn State went 0 for 14). After the shot, the other team would grab the ball at its leisure (whether the shot went in or not), and repeat the process on the other side of the floor. It was the Big Ten version of "Go Fish."

Aesthetics aside, this game was a pivotal one for both teams. For Wisconsin, it was their second road victory which equalized their two home losses. For Penn State, it had the same effect in the opposite direction. The game also moved Wisconsin up to third in conference efficiency margin, despite the fact that the Badgers sit below .500 in conference play. The rest of the Big Ten would be wise not to judge Bo Ryan's team by its record.

Marcus Landry led Wisconsin with 13 points on 9 shots, to go along with 6 rebounds. Stanley Pringle led Penn State with 11 points on 10 shots. Box score.

Play resumes tomorrow, with Michigan State visiting Ann Arbor, while the Gophers host Indiana.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ice Cold in Madison

Continuing a disturbing trend, Illinois struggled mightily with their road shooting and fell to Wisconsin, 63-50. This latest goose egg by the Illini (35.9 eFG%) was laid against one of the worst eFG% defenses in the conference - coming in, Wisconsin had allowed an eFG above 52% in five straight games (all losses). Watching the game, it felt like Illinois was simply missing shots they had been making all season, but credit Wisconsin for not letting the Illini get any easy buckets either.

Offensively, the Badgers shot just 41% from inside the arc and didn't really hit the offensive glass at all, but they made up for those shortcomings by hitting 40% from downtown, led by Jason Bohannon's 6 for 7 night. Bohannon finished with 20 points on just 9 shots, didn't turn it over at all, and even led the team in defensive rebounds (5). Marcus Landry and Jon Leuer provided most of the remaining offense, combining for 31 points on 23 shots and grabbing 6 rebounds apiece. Box score.

For Wisconsin, the big win breaks a 6-game skid and evens the season series between the teams. The Badgers still have lots of work to do if they hope to reach the NCAA Tournament, but a 9-9 conference mark seems doable, with only three games (at Penn State, at Michigan State, at Minnesota) looking like losses according to Pomeroy. That type of finish would put Wisconsin in position to possibly squeak into the NCAAs with a good Big Ten Tournament.

As for the Illini, they've got to figure out how to hit a few shots away from Champaign. They'll need to win at least a couple of their remaining road games (Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State) to truly lock up an NCAA Tournament bid, as their home slate is far from easy (Purdue, Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan State). I could see Illinois finishing anywhere from 14-4 to 9-9 in the conference, with 5 of their remaining games looking like true toss-ups. It figures to be an interesting month for Illini fans, one way or another.

In the other matchup of the night, Michigan shrugged off Penn State's recent successes and beat down the Nittany Lions, 71-51 in 63 possessions. Beilein Ball was working like magic, with the Wolverines taking over half of their shots from downtown and making 38% of those long-range attempts. As usual when Beilein Ball is working, Michigan also shot a nice percentage inside the arc - 56% on this night. To complete the trinity, the Wolverines took outstanding care of the ball, and Penn State was toast. Throw in the 39% eFG posted by Penn State and this game turned into a blowout.

Manny Harris was spectacular, scoring 28 points on 13 shots, grabbing 6 boards, dishing 7 assists (just 2 turnovers), blocking two shots, and making two steals. Corperryale had been struggling as of late, but it looks like Manny Fresh is back. For Penn State, the Battle/Pringle backcourt shot just 6 for 29 on the night, and Jamelle Cornley's great effort (25 points on 12 shots) wasn't enough to overcome it. Box score.

It looks like we can put to rest any ideas of Penn State contending for the Big Ten title, but the Nittany Lions are still in great shape for their first NCAA Tournament bid since the 2000-01 Sweet 16 season. Penn State hosts Wisconsin on Sunday in a game that both teams really need as we head down the homestretch.

The conference gets back into action on Saturday, with the most interesting league game being Minnesota at Ohio State - the loser drops to 5 losses and makes their road to a bid that much tougher. Michigan gets a chance to knock off another giant as they travel to Connecticut. Indiana comes off their big first win and - whoops - has to travel to Michigan State, while Iowa hosts Northwestern.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hoosier Daddy

In what might be our only remaining chance this season to legitimately use the title phrase (and I do love it so), Indiana ran out to a 20-point lead and this time managed to hold on for their first Big Ten victory, 68-60 over the freefalling Iowa Hawkeyes. This game was played at Iowa’s pace – 59 possessions – but the huge surprise was Indiana’s suddenly effective offense. The Hoosiers have now posted an efficiency above 109 in each of the past three games, and that includes games against solid defenses in Ohio State and Northwestern. How have they done it?

Well, suddenly and inexplicably, Indiana has morphed into a perimeter-oriented team (POT). Check out Indiana’s POT-related stats over the past three games compared to the previous 18:





On the backs of Devan Dumes (14 for 23) and Matt Roth (14 for 24), Indiana is suddenly taking - and making - tons of threes. As you’d expect in this scenario, offensive rebounding and turnovers have dropped a bit - the usual tradeoffs for a POT. Is Tom Crean onto something, or is this just a temporary blip? Obviously, you’re not going to hit 53% from downtown as a team for an extended period, but maybe Indiana’s young offense is starting to figure itself out a bit.

In this game, Dumes carried the torch nearly singlehandedly, scoring 27 points on just 9 shots (including 5 for 5 from downtown). On the other side, a hot second half for Matt Gatens wasn’t enough to bring his team back, but he did finish with 22 points on 15 shots. Box score.

Fresh off a thrashing of Illinois, Minnesota was humbled in turn at Michigan State, falling behind by as many as 35 points before losing 76-47. This one was over from the outset, with the Spartans jumping out to a 13-1 lead and never looking back. Michigan State still had a bit of a turnover problem, but they shot, rebounded, and defended so well that it didn’t really matter. Durrell Summers posted 21 points on 10 shots - mostly in the first half - making it three out of four games in which the emerging sophomore scored at least 21 points. Box score.

With the win, the Spartans are still firmly in the driver’s seat for the conference title, but have much to prove with a visit to Illinois and two games against Purdue still looming. This race is far from over, but Michigan State is still looking like the favorite, especially with the news that Robbie Hummel has a stress fracture in his back and will be dealing with it for the rest of the year.

Finally, in a nonconference game, Northwestern defeated Chicago State 75-63. This was actually a 1-point game with 4 minutes left in the first half, but the Wildcats outscored Chicago State 31-10 over the next 14 minutes to put them away. Northwestern, as usual, had nice balance offensively - Kevin Coble, John Shurna, and Craig Moore each scored 15 to 19 points on 11 or 12 shots. It was a welcome return to relevance for Shurna, who is averaging just 3.6 points per game in Big Ten play. Northwestern fans can only hope that some of that confidence will carry over into Saturday’s game at Iowa. Box score.

Tonight, Michigan hosts red-hot Penn State (6pm CT, Big Ten Network), while Wisconsin hopes to end their 6-game skid with a home game against Illinois (8pm CT, ESPN).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Not Voting

Mike and I were recently invited to participate in the CBS Blogpoll, allegedly coming soon. The idea is that a few dozen blogs or so submit a top 25 ballot ranking all of the teams. The votes would be tallied, and based on that, a new top 25 ranking would emerge. There would even be roundtable discussions to talk about individual teams. On its face, it sounds like fun, it sounds like interesting discussion, and it sounds like it would surely drive a lot of traffic this way.

We're not going to do it. And we've got a few reasons why not. Because we're flattered by the invitation, we feel the need to explain ourselves:

What's the point?
No, we don't mean "what's the point of submitting a list of the top 25 teams because it's not going to solve world hunger" -- much of what we do here is pretty pointless in the "organic matter floating on a rock" grand scheme of things. I mean, what's the poll supposed to tell us? Is it supposed to mean that if No. 1 played No. 2 on a neutral court, that No. 1 will win most of the time? Is it supposed to mean that No. 1 has played the best basketball of late? Is it supposed to mean that No. 1 hasn't lost in the longest time? Likely every blogger will have their own view on what the point is, and that will only guarantee that this poll will have no point.

There are already some good rankings out there
And no, we don't mean the AP or the Coaches version. Or even the RPI. I mean Pomeroy, Sagarin, and Basketball State's rankings. All of these ranking systems have very specific purposes, and very complex algorithms that we couldn't hope to compete with. If you want accuracy in your poll, your best bet is to take a look at one of those.

No really, what's the point?
We're somewhat blessed in college basketball to have indisputability. Unlike the other major college sport, in about two months, all of the best teams in the nation will participate in a tournament, the winner of which will be the unquestioned champion. In two months, it won't matter what the pollsters said all season. And that isn't for just No. 1 either - the results of this tournament will largely drive the rankings of the teams that came up short as well. And that won't just be the case in the AP or Coaches Poll, but all of the other polls out there as well. Why participate in a weekly voting exercise that will be rendered moot in the face of the Tournament trump card?

Teams are more than a number
That might sound weird for guys who blog about numbers so much, but that's just it, we like numbers. Plural. It's been said here before that we don't love the Offensive Rating number, ease of use and accuracy be damned, because we don't like summing up a player by just one number. Well, the same is true for teams. Yes, Purdue is a good team. But telling you that "Purdue = 11" and that "UCLA = 8" fails miserably in describing those teams. And that's what we're interested in doing here.

I admit, polls and rankings provide comfort in the chaotic morass of sports. Despite all of their rules, referees, sidelines, and booth reviews, sports are not immune from the ending where so much is determined by so little. Sports are necessarily bright line, but this need for line-drawing has invaded the province of description. It's no longer enough to say that the team won 25 games and advanced to the Sweet 16 last year. A number must be assigned. And that number becomes the story. If you were asked how, let's say, Butler was doing this season, you might mention that the Bulldogs are having the rarest of seasons. That they stand at 19-2 this year, despite the fact they returned less than 30% of the minutes from last season. You might say that for the first time in a long time, the Bulldogs are turning it over more than once in a blue moon. You might say that although this team usually wins in spite of its defense, that this year they are winning because of it.

You might say all those things, but you probably won't. You'll probably just say they must be pretty good, because they're ranked 11th in the country. Would fans have encyclopedic knowledge of all college basketball teams if rankings didn't exist? Probably not. But so long as the shorthand exists, people will use it.

This isn't to say we criticize and scorn all those participating in the Blogpoll. Indeed, a great many bloggers we admire and respect appear to be in this group - it truly was flattering, guys. The promise of holding roundtable discussions with these insightful thinkers was enough for us to think twice about passing. But the ultimate purpose of this thing was to submit a ballot to come up with a poll, and our hearts just wouldn't be into it.

So instead we'll continue to traverse college basketball's turbulent terrain, pausing throughout to offer our ramblings. And we will resist the temptation to provide you with a numbered list that fails wofeully to capture those thoughts.

William Buford makes me look good

A day after I compared William Buford to Eric Gordon, the freshman goes off for 22 points on just 14 shots in Ohio State's 80-72 overtime win over Purdue. Coming into this game, Purdue had the best shooting defense in the conference. Ohio State was the best shooting team in the conference. Something had to give, and that something was Purdue's defense. The Buckeyes shot over 60% in this one, including 5-11 from three point range. In each of their last 4 games, Ohio State has posted an eFG north of 62.0. In fact, in Big Ten play, they have an eFG of 58.2.

So why exactly does this team have only the third best offense in the conference? Well, the biggest reason is the same one that I predicted in the preseason - turnovers. Ohio State is a team operating without a point guard right now, and while Jeremie Simmons and Evan Turner are doing a fine job for playing out of position, but they're no replacement for Jamar Butler. Still, the turnovers might be under control if B. J. Mullens starts playing more, and Dallas Lauderdale plays less.

Ohio State turned it over plenty against Purdue, coughing it up 19 times. Nonetheless, the Buckeyes shot well enough to overcome that, led by the three-pronged attack of Buford, Turner, and Mullens, who combined for 65 points on 38 shots and 23 rebounds. Turner also had 7 assists, but that came with 5 turnovers.

On the other side of the ball, Purdue sorely missed the absence of Robbie Hummel, who is still suffering with his back spasms. Hummel does so much on the floor it's hard to think he wouldn't have made a difference last night. That said, JaJuan Johnson is quickly becoming Purdue's best player. Last night the big man went off for 30 points on 16 shots while E'Twaun Moore suffered through a bad night offensively. We may never get to see this team healthy for the rest of the season, which is a shame, but even hobbled they are pretty good. Still, Purdue had a chance here to take advantage of the opening left by Michigan State's loss over the weekend, and they came up short. Box score.

I know I've been ascending the soapbox quite a bit lately, and I promise to refrain from doing so in a bit here, but I'll ask that you indulge me once more. See, yesterday as I got on the elevator, a co-worker and I struck up a conversation about the sporting event that sandwiched the Bruce Springstein concert over the weekend. After discussing what a great game it was, this individual lamented that we were now in somewhat of sports "black hole," with nothing going on until pitchers and catchers were to report. "Heavens to Betsy," I thought - is it possible that my obsession over college basketball is the exception, rather than the rule? I can understand the disinterest in the NBA regular season - it's hard to expect the fans to care when the players don't - and although I feel hockey players do try very hard, it just seems like they're speaking another language. Not "getting" hockey is as American as apple pie (though I admit, Midwesterners do share an interest in the puck game that goes beyond the rest of the nation's. But as a transplant, I'm afraid this escapes me). So I ask him, "Well, what's your college team?" He replies, "Penn State."

Oh my.

This hit me to my very core. The Nittany Lions are, of course, in the midst of their best season in nearly 20 years. They currently feature the conference's most dynamic player, who is the runaway MVP at this point. They're led by an undersized senior power forward who out-efforts his opponent every time he takes the floor. They've beaten two teams worthy of holding a top ten ranking at some point this season. And one of those wins came just two days ago. I submit that if you can't get excited about this year's Penn State team, you're just not a Penn State fan. In fact, you probably need your head examined.

This is not sports' "black hole." Indeed, this is one of the most exciting times of the year. Conference play. I'll understand if Indiana fans are changing the channel a bit more this season, but there's really no excuse for anyone else. We're living in college basketball's golden age. The best high school players in the country are all but forced to live amongst the students and play for free for at least one season. More Gus Johnson. Less Billy Packer. It's a world that our parents could have only dreamed of. There have been five overtime games so far this season, and there's a decent chance that we see five more before the season's over. The conference leader has already been beat twice at home. We've had buzzer beaters, clutch free throws, and yes, the fans have stormed the floor. And we've got a long way to go.

I hope everyone out there is enjoying it as much as I am.

Tonight Iowa visits Indiana in what represents the Hoosiers' best shot at winning a game this season. Northwestern hosts Chicago State in a brief interruption of their conference schedule, and Minnesota takes on Michigan State at the Breslin Center.